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Review: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)

Directed by: John McNaughton

Premise: A loose adaptation of the life of Henry Lee Lucas. Serial killer Henry (Michael Rooker) and his roommate Otis (Tom Towles) stalk the streets of Chicago, killing random victims.

What Works: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a unique horror picture. It is not a wall-to-wall bloodbath but it is a very tough and unpleasant film to watch. This picture is intended as a character study, and the filmmakers adopt a cinema verite style. This isn’t a found footage film but it does follow a serial killer in his routine and makes the viewer a witness to the amoral perspective of a psychopath. Michael Rooker plays Henry and it is a terrific performance. Rooker does not play the role as a boogieman but as a person with simply no regard for human life. Rooker possesses an air of violence and his voice and physical presence suggest that he is fully capable of doing these awful things but also that he is intelligent enough to navigate through society. It is the ordinariness of Henry that makes the character so frightening. The film also features Tom Towles as Otis, Henry’s friend and later accomplice, and the filmmakers accomplish something quite subversive with the character. Otis is to Henry as Buffalo Bill is to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs;  both are murders but their differences in manners makes the viewer forget the threat of the latter character until the violence is unleashed. Henry’s induction of Otis into the life of serial killing is frightening in the way it unleashes an uninhibited monstrosity in Otis that goes beyond Henry’s ability to control. In that the film suggests something about the slippery nature of morality. The other important supporting role is fulfilled by Tracy Arnold as Becky, Otis’ sister. She is tragically unable to see what is right in front of her and Becky has a credible naiveté that gives the film an emotional punch that it might not otherwise have. Because of the cinematic style, strong performances, and the intelligent writing, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an uncompromising film that is a sophisticated portrayal of evil. Henry and Otis are not evil geniuses but their abandon of any recognizable morality and the film’s blunt presentation of their murders makes this a far more honest portrayal of evil. And that is the ongoing value of this film. When the movies deal with the subject of evil, it is often presented with the ostentatious style of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Wicked Witch of The Wizard of Oz, or Darth Vader in Star Wars. Those characters are great in their films, but in real life evil often has a more banal appearance and that is exactly why Henry is so powerful. This film captures the everyday amorality of psychopathic violence which makes the film extremely unsettling.

What Doesn’t: Henry is a very low budget picture made in the mid-1980s and it has to be understood in that context. This is in many ways an ugly film both thematically but also aesthetically. At the time of its original release viewers sometimes criticized Henry as an immoral film because its makers did not shape their narrative or cinematic techniques to affirm a moral message. That lack of a forced moral lesson is precisely why Henry is so unnerving but it remains an unpleasant film. As Henry was produced on a low budget, the cinematic limitations of the filmmakers are more pronounced when viewing the picture in the high-definition era. Henry was formatted in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, fitting it to television screens of the 1980s, so when viewing the film on a 16:9 display it will have black bars on the vertical sides of the image. The sound is somewhat hollow and the picture quality is often grainy, even on the Blu-ray edition, although the rougher qualities of the film actually support the filmmaking style.

DVD extras: Commentary track, a documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, image galleries, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a challenging and unpleasant movie but its nihilism is matched by the filmmakers’ earnestness. This is not an exploitation film and its treatment of psychopathology is far more serious than many Hollywood pictures dealing with the same subject.

Episode: #410 (October 21, 2012)